The 24 days of Advent kick off Dec. 1. Your kids might look forward to daily Advent chocolates, but family Advent calendars also can be a great way to build meaningful holiday traditions and weave an intentional focus on kindness, family, faith and gratitude into your holiday season.
The way the calendar falls, Thanksgiving is late this year.
A late Thanksgiving means:
The college students I teach go home for Thanksgiving and come back for three days of class rather than a week and three days. Imagine the motivation we all have to come back for three days of intense final projects and presentations before jumping into finals (clue: not a lot). Stress levels will be at a 15/10.
A late Thanksgiving means:
We “lose” a week of Christmas décor if we don’t decorate until after Thanksgiving. Only three weeks of cozy evenings in a family room lit by the lights on the tree. Not to mention the limited time to enjoy the result of the mini Ironman required to haul boxes from the crawl space, put up holiday decorations and decorate the tree.
My sister and nephew gave in and decorated before Thanksgiving. She’s not hosting Thanksgiving at her house, and as a Christmas fanatic, she just couldn’t hold off any more.
The cuteness quotient on this photo is sky high. My sister is 10 years younger than me, and therefore one million times better at taking Instagram photos.
A late Thanksgiving also means:
We jump right into December – and the start of Advent – with only one day of breathing room after Thanksgiving and Black Friday.
I refuse to be friends with winter, but I do love the Christmas season (my birthday is the day after Christmas, so do I even have a choice?). Honestly, I usually enjoy the anticipation and the small, special moments leading up to Christmas day more than I even enjoy the day itself.
We celebrate the 24 days leading up to Christmas Day as Advent in our house, and we’ve built some meaningful Advent traditions that help keep our priorities in place and our spirits bright throughout the holidays. It’s not always as idyllic as that might sound (check out my post on The Secret to Contentment in a Season of Selfishness for a video of my daughter throwing a major hissy fit at the store because she wanted something while we were out shopping for others.)
But as I look at the different Advent traditions in my family and Kristie’s family that really work, I can point to four main reasons they’re such a meaningful part of our Christmas season.
The most meaningful Advent traditions do one or more of the following:
1. Incorporate giving, not just getting
I understand that Advent refers to the 24 days leading up to Christmas, yet I somehow never really stopped to ask how the tradition to give kids candy every day came onto the scene. Apparently those cardboard Advent calendars where you can pop out a chocolate each day didn’t hit mass popularity in the U.S. until the 1980s and ‘90s. WhyChristmas.com reports they were floating around Germany as early as the 1800s, and were even mass produced there until a cardboard shortage during World War II stopped production.
I don’t buy the cardboard Advent calendar because we have a wooden one with doors that I fill with candy on my own.
This is my advent calendar. It has room for a note and treats for all three kids each day.
The highlight of our calendar isn’t the candy (ok, some days the kids might think the highlight is the candy). I also add a note in the box for most days with something small we’ll do that day to celebrate the season.
Advent Calendar: Opportunities to Give Back
Here’s the part where I do more than shovel sugar into my kids. As I create my list of daily advent notes, I pull from several strategic categories, and one focuses on giving rather than getting. The notes might say:
- Deliver Christmas treats to neighbors/friends
- Go give money to the bell-ringer at the grocery store
These notes don’t always generate the most initial excitement, but they 100% create the longest lasting impact. A year later, the only Advent item still coming up in discussion among my kids is going out for peppermint milkshakes and paying for the car behind us in the drive-thru.
“You lucked out, Mom! They only ordered a coffee. What if they had ordered dinner for 20? Are we gonna do that again this year? Won’t it be fun to see what they order. What if it’s a huge dinner?”
For our family, the Advent calendar has been a powerful way to show the power of both giving and receiving well because we can reinforce those lessons over 24 normal-ish days rather than one hyper-excited day -- I'm talking about Christmas, just in case there's any confusion.
Since this post is all about ways to create meaningful family Advent traditions, I compiled a printable list of Advent calendar activities. I included the give-back and random acts of kindness activities I've used in our family's calendar in past years, and a few new ideas I'm considering for this year.
2. Commit time. Consistently.
The second way to build meaningful Advent traditions is to carve out consistent daily time for them. This takes some planning and effort – and a little flexibility if you’re a busy family. But something happens when you commit to spending a little time together doing something specific every single day for 24 days. It becomes a bright spot in the day and a reminder of how much it means to really connect with one another, even if it’s brief. By brief, I’m talking 10 minutes in the morning or before bed or at a family dinner. Some days you might be able to do something that takes longer, and other days you might miss altogether and need to make things up the following day.
At the risk of sounding like a lunatic, I’ll go ahead and share that we have several daily Advent rituals in my house. My husband and I both work, and we have three very involved kids (aka it's crazy town around here most of the time), but we embrace multiple daily Advent traditions for a couple reasons. The first is that I have three kids and we inherited two Advent calendars, so the numbers didn’t work. Lego supplemented a third calendar, so now every kid has a daily Advent task.
Kid #1 opens the wooden door, reads the note and distributes any candy. Kid #2 moves the little wooden candy cane hanging from a piece of yarn to the next pocket on a hanging felt Christmas tree. Kid #3 pulls out the next Lego piece and adds it to the collection. We have reused the same LEGO Advent calendar for years, so I broke down and bought the Harry Potter LEGO Advent Calendar this year. Nothing showcases the true meaning of Christmas like Harry Potter LEGOs, right?😉🤷♀️🎄
The point is that this entire ritual takes approximately 60 seconds every morning, but it’s the first thing on my kids’ mind when they come down the stairs.
Advent Calendar: Opportunities to Spend Time Together
Because daily time spent together as a family adds such value to our holidays, another category on my list of Advent calendar activities relates to activities where we spend time doing something together. Whatever child gets the honor of opening the wooden Advent calendar might pull out a note that says:
- Watch a Christmas special
- Go see a holiday play
- Play Rudolph Operation
- Go see Christmas lights in your PJs
Photographic evidence from our Christmas lights in PJs escapade from last year. Not pictured: spilled hot chocolate all over the interior of my minivan. But a fun time was had by all.
Our neighbor scored a role in a local production of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It was a blast to see the show, and know a cast member!
The slightly more time-consuming – but so meaningful – daily routine we have during Advent is reading a family Advent book together. We use the Ann Voskamp book Unwrapping the Greatest Gift. Each day’s reading is just a page or two, and there are still times we miss and have to combine a couple days into one.
Kristie’s family uses The Advent Book, created by Jack & Kathy Stockman. She says it’s a beautifully-illustrated book with 25 doors that open to reveal segments of the Christmas story. It’s written simply enough that younger children can understand. Her family has been reading it together since her boys were babies, and they memorized the Christmas story at an early age because they read it so often.
I also try to add at least one book to our collection of Christmas books each year. Here are a few others to choose from if you want to make reading an Advent activity for a day, or for the whole season:
Books my families owns/loves:
Books we want to try out this year:
(UPDATE: A Boy Called Christmas is a great story, and we're part-way through The Vanderbeekers and really like it.)
3. Make Christmas About More
The word “Advent” actually comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” For my family, Advent has always been about preparing for the coming of Christmas.
I grew up in the Methodist church, where we lit candles the four Sundays leading up to Christmas: three purples and a pink. The candles traditionally represent hope, faith, joy and peace and are usually placed in a wreath of evergreens to symbolize everlasting life. My husband gave me a wooden advent “wreath” several years ago to use as a centerpiece on our table, and lighting those candles weekly reminds us that Christmas truly gives us the gift of hope, faith, joy and peace.
A friend shared the suggestion to read one chapter of the book of Luke in the Bible each day of Advent - there are 24 chapters. Luke's version of the Christmas story is the most widely used. It's the one Linus recites in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Advent Calendar: Meaning of Christmas
My list of Advent calendar activities also has ideas for remembering and thinking about the Christmas story in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
- Go to a Christmas Eve service
- Watch the movie The Star
4. Encourage gratitude
The last category on my list of Advent calendar activities includes things that encourage gratitude. We talk about gratitude a lot, because we feel like it's one of the best gifts we can give our kids. Gratitude contributes to physical, emotional and mental health - for us, and for our kids.
Kristie posted her Top 10 Ways to Be a More Grateful Family, and I want to add Advent gratitude activities to that list.
Advent Calendar: Showing Gratitude
Your Advent calendar could ask your kids to:
- Help with teacher gifts (We have the best idea this year for my son's teacher this year, and I'm so excited to give it! I'll post to our Instagram and Facebook after we give it.)
- Write a thank you letter for their year
- Do a Christmas Gratitude Photo Scavenger Hunt (download ours for free)
You can also do things beyond the Advent calendar in your house to encourage and inspire gratitude. We created downloadable holiday lunchbox note cards with teens and tweens in mind because all the ones we found seemed too childish for our kids. Many of the notes focus on gratitude, and you can print, cut and tuck them in lunchboxes, books, planners or coat pockets.
We also created printable gratitude quotes to print and display at home. The download offers 12 different quotes in both 8x10 and 5x7 formats.
- Grab our printable list of Advent calendar activities to get all of the ideas in this post, plus additional bonus ideas. This list includes activities that will help your family give back, spend time together, focus on what really matters and show gratitude this holiday season.